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Smart towns showing the way forward for larger urban initiatives

Local initiatives helping to drive regional development and wider policymaking

‘Smart’ doesn’t relate only to connected devices. It should mean clever too.

Even something as simple as a greenway can be improved by the smart use of technology.

“It could be about developing web- or app-based products advertising or mapping services related to the greenway, such as, where is the nearest bus stop, what time the buses come and what services are available along the way,” says Malachy Bradley, assistant director of the Eastern and Midlands Regional Assembly.

The right digital tool could therefore encourage visitors, improve their experience, enable them to get more exercise, foster environmental awareness, improve public transport, boost tourism and support economic development – all in one go.

All of this fits perfectly with the three principles that drive the assembly’s regional spatial and economic strategy. These are healthy placemaking – promoting quality of life through the creation of healthy and attractive places to live, work, visit and study – climate action and economic opportunity.

The data generated by smart technology is helping to deliver on all of these.

Right now, for example, the assembly is looking at the potential for shared office spaces, or co-working hubs, in towns.

These enable shorter commutes, improving quality of life, and reduces carbon emissions, helping the environment. They might also help revivify towns struggling from depopulation and lack of services, with retail sectors that never fully recovered from the financial crisis.

Data from a variety of sources is helping local authorities to decide where to locate them, and how best to link them in with other key regional assets, such as a nearby institute of technology, or centre of research excellence. “It’s about evidence-based policymaking,” says Bradley.

Derry

It’s happening across the country. Derry has earmarked £11 million of its £210 million city deal to fund its smart-city and digital-enabling infrastructure projects.

"These are going to be the foundation that allows the wider elements of the city deal to grow and flourish," says Kevin O'Connor, head of business and smart city lead in Derry City and Strabane Council.

Derry’s mission is to create an open innovation ecosystem – reflective of its values of community, inclusiveness and creativity – focused on sustainable digital transformation and productivity improvement of target economic sectors.

But again, the tech talk and policy speak boils down to simple enhancements of everyday life, like where to position parks and how to improve transport links so that more people can enjoy them.

“We need to build the infrastructure to see how people access our services, our greenways, our cycleways and play parks, and all our general services. It’s about mapping and collating all that data and allowing entrepreneurs free access to it, so that they can build and market products and applications,” says O’Connor.

With about 50 local authorities across the island of Ireland alone, “all facing the same challenges”, the opportunity to scale up successful innovations is enormous, he points out.

Limerick City and County Council, in partnership with the University of Limerick, is initiating an open innovation ecosystem focused on Limerick Living Labs. These are mechanisms to integrate learning, research and open innovation processes into real-world settings. The idea is for citizens, researchers, government and business to work together to co-create, test and evaluate new business models, collaboration processes, clean-energy technologies and rapid urban prototypes.

“Since the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, cities are positioned at the forefront of the response to climate change and the need to accelerate this response sees cities move to formalise partnerships with universities to allow the public sector to access the knowledge, technologies and best practice they need to address societal problems while engaging with their citizens to bring about change,” says Laura Ryan, head of communications and marketing with Limerick City and County Council.

Limerick’s Citizen Innovation Lab is a naturally interdisciplinary space to accommodate living-lab processes. Located in Limerick’s Georgian innovation district, it’s a space where citizens, students and volunteers can co-design and co-create solutions for better places, spaces and communities, supported by a digital platform.

The Citizen Innovation Lab encompasses the observatory, an urban smart-city concept where people make observations about their environment using digital platforms. It also includes a small-batch digital prototyping lab as an extension to an existing FabLab, and includes an engagement hub where citizens can collaborate with government, academic and industry experts, plus others in civil society, to co-create their future city.

Evolution

If an idea is truly smart, it will catch on. Just think of your phone. "The smart city is no different to the evolution from the analogue phone to the smartphone," explains Robert Costello managing director of the infrastructure and government team at KPMG.

Smart-city initiatives area already helping to ease traffic management on streets and energy management in public buildings, he points out, while the Croke Park smart stadium is helping improve fan experiences, safety and its carbon footprint.

Connected rubbish bins use solar power to crush litter, send signals to local authorities when they need collecting, and host other devices that collect footfall, air quality, noise and traffic-management data.

The Covid tracker app is a good example of “society trying a technology utilised to help inform decision-making,” he adds.

Like bins, most smart-city solutions are not necessarily new, just better. However, greater emphasis on public education is required if such innovations are to be not just adapted but accepted, he cautions, pointing to the conspiracy theories surrounding 5G as a case in point.

“It’s a perfect example of the challenges ahead. Conspiracy theories are not founded in fact but need to be addressed because, with 5G, you need sensors everywhere, not just on towers but on buildings, in street furniture, at traffic lights,” says Costello.

“The public needs to understand why that is the case because lots of co-operation is required between building owners, telecoms companies and the public.”

Starting on a small scale, in smart towns and smart villages instead of smart cities, makes sense, as it makes it easier to get public buy in. “Then you have a proof of concept, and you can roll it out elsewhere,” says Costello.

“Look at Mayo’s greenway. Everyone was sceptical at first, now every part of the country wants one. It’s the same with smart towns.”